Regarde les Chinois : Simon Law

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Simon Law

Dans sa section Regarde les Chinois, ce blogue s’entretient avec des personnes connues, ou moins connues, de la communauté chinoise. Cette semaine, nous rencontrons Simon Law, 26 ans, que j’ai connu il y a deux ans, alors qu’il prenait des photos lors d’un spectacle de nu-jazz sur le Plateau. Samedi dernier, je me suis assis avec lui au Club Social, sur St-Viateur, pour parler de BarCamps, de gestion numérique des droits (DRM), de Shenzhen, de la perception de l’homme (et donc de la femme) asiatique en Occident, et de ce qu’il trouve de si bien avec cette ville qu’on appelle Montréal.

In its Regarde les Chinois section, this blog speaks with known and lesser known people from the Chinese community. This week, we meet 26-year old Simon Law, who I met two years ago in a nu-jazz show on the Plateau. Last Saturday, I sat with him at Club Social, on St-Viateur, to talk about BarCamps, digital rights management (DRM), Shenzhen, the perception of Asian man (and therefore woman) in the West, and what he finds so enjoyable about this city called Montreal.

Language of the interview / langue de l’interview: English / anglais

CLC: So… tell me what you do?

SL: What do I do? Everything. I guess that the best way to sum it up… You know what? I actually always tell them that I am a photographer. I could tell them that I am a computer programmer, that I am an activist, that I organize un-conferences in Montreal, but it is just easier to tell people that I am a photographer.

CLC: Yeah, in fact I met you at a show, taking photos. Do you do that a lot?

SL: I was doing that a lot. I have less time now to do concert photography, but I’ve done a few things with local bands, random photography… I show up illicitly in concerts and what’s really interesting about taking photos in a concert where you are not supposed to, and e-mail them to the bands, they simply love, because they never have photos of themselves.

CLC: So, other than photography?

SL: I am interested in doing a lot of different things that tie my work together. I am interested in making Montreal a better place to live, of taking advantage of technologies that we have to make our lives better. I started out as a technologist, but not the kind of technologist who thinks “oh, I am going to make more money with technology”, or the kind that thinks that technology intrinsically makes people’s lives better. You have to work on how to make technology a constructive tool.

CLC: Erm, sorta like guns don’t kill people; people kill people?

SL: Yeah, sort of. When it comes to web technology, recording technology or photography technology, all these things that are coming together right now, have changed the dynamic of how people communicate, and how people create. That’s the kind of things I have been working on in the various communities in Montreal. With Ubisoft, Google, IBM, Softimage being here, and we also have a lot of artists who come out of Sheridan, UQAM… They know how to use these technologies, but they are locked in schools that teach them the old methods of production. So, how do we get technologists together? The people who are going to build the next distribution networks, the next ways that consumers interact with producers, without the existing middlemen that want to enforce their old business models.

CLC: Like online music stores?

SL: Online music stores… that’s still an old way of thinking. We noticed that it is really hard to compete with free. we noticed that it isn’t the actual digital contents that makes people want to pay. It’s the physical contents that are rare. If people buy CDs nowadays, it’s because they want that physical object, because the music that people get in digital format is exactly as good as the CDs. Or people go to concerts, buy the merchandise.

CLC: I’ve seen you pass petitions against the use of DRMs. Can you tell us more?

SL: I think that any technology that creates scarcity is wrong. It’s like taking candy from a baby. Let’s say you have a machine that makes free rice, and people can purchase it for an affordable amount money like a thousand bucks. So, like, existing rice-producing conglomerates are “no, no, you can’t do that. you are putting all these people out of jobs!”. So, they are going to make machines that prevent your free rice from being made. That is kinda sketchy! Your business model is based upon stopping technology, just so that you can have your old way of making money.

CLC: You are involved with BarCamps. Tell me more.

SL: We didn’t come up with this idea of un-conferences. It was some guy, in the US, who didn’t get invited to Friends Of O’Reilly Camp (FooCamp), and started his own. The first BarCamp was held at Socialtext, and started spreading around the world. Fred Ngo in Montreal took the initiative and started the first BarCamp in his dance studio. I went, took photos and was very happy to see that and got involved.

CLC: When was that?

SL: Oh, that must have been two years ago. The second one, we did it at the S.A.T., who helped us a lot. We try to connect people who normally wouldn’t get together to talk about technology. It spun off into other camps, who are not related to us at all, but who liked our format, such as RoCoCoCamp (about Wikis), Creacamp (do-it-yourself crafts), or Pecha Kucha (design). I’ve been very excited about that because it’s getting people in the city who normally wouldn’t talk about their work into a context where they can meet other people to work with. At Barcamp, we saw a lot of people forming their technology company after meeting there. […] We’re trying to get a nation-wide Barcamp Canada, that we are hoping to do in Montreal in May, and to tap in other more different communities that use technologies, not just the very standard, reliable “BarCamp People”.

CLC: Now, for a change in topic, how do you feel about being Chinese / Canadian?

SL: I emigrated from Hong Kong to Toronto when I was two and a half. Growing up in a very very Chinese household where my parents pretended not to speak English, and then going to school, really gives you this split personality. Some things that you are very Chinese about, and others, very Western about. There is this conflict of how you balance things out : which values do you have for each side, how do you relate to other people? My parents, because they are immigrants, are soooo Hong Kong Chinese, from the 70s, because they’ve lashed on to it, and holding on to a Hong Kong that doesn’t even exist anymore.

CLC: Yeah, exactly, it’s a phenomenon with a lot of immigrants. They are nostalgic about the culture of their country at the moment they emigrated.

SL: They’re not just nostalgic, it’s their last grip on familiarity. It’s the last thing that keeps them… sane!

CLC: How do you find Hong Kong when you go back?

SL: The thing that really hits me is that Hong Kong is such a free market society. We’re really used to socialism in Canada. Going there and seeing the huge divide between rich and poor, how things are really dirty in some places, and really gorgeous in others… In Canada, we are really spoiled, because it is so multicultural.

CLC: How does it feel not being a visible minority in Hong Kong? Versus being a visible minority here?

SL: I thought it was really weird, because in Hong Kong you notice this weird kind of racism that happens against people with dark skin. I mean, it happens here, but people try to hide it more! There was this time when I was walking in this sketchy neighbourhood. A black guy was walking down the street, and all the Chinese started crossing the street to avoid him! That was weird! Nothing you would see in Canada! And being a visible minority here in Canada? I think being a minority as Chinese is not so bad – nobody really hates us, none of our cultural traits are really controversial… I don’t know, it’s okay…

CLC: Do you follow any sports?

SL: I think for a while I was a fan of curling, which is a very Canadian sport! I used to figure skate and do table tennis, but now I have been following competitive Go!

CLC: Competitive Go!

SL: Go appeals to me on my geekier side, where I am like, this game is so mathematically elegant! There is a lot of complexity, it’s very fractal in its behaviour.

CLC: Do you think it’s a very intuitive sort of game, too complex to analyze sometimes?

SL: No, I think that you can do a lot of analysis on Go and a lot of people have developed techniques. It’s a blend between pattern recognition and analysis… like deep-searching. There are a lot of analogies to make with this game. You can at the time, to perform moves ahead of time to sort of backup your pieces later on, or abandon one train of thought and go somewhere else in the hopes of confusing your opponent, or eventually move some stronger pieces in the area to turn a disadvantageous situation into an advantageous one. You have a lot of analogies for long-range planning in life that show up in Go, even under these really simple rules. So it’s beautiful! And you get a lot of these structures that come out as a consequence of the world system.

CLC: I’d like to ask you about Terry Woo (author of Banana Boys). You used to work in the same company? Was it a big company?

SL: It was a pretty big people. We went from 50 people, to 400 people, back down to 50 people, while I was working there. So it was like an exciting ride in the dot-com era! Terry worked in professional services, which meant that he took our products, and after someone sold it, he would have customized that product for this client. And he didn’t like that at all. He wanted to be a writer, and his first book Banana Boys, 香蕉仔, was a great book. When he first gave me a copy to look at, he said that it was the “Anti-Joy Luck Club”. It follows a similar structure than The Joy Luck Club, in that it’s interwoven stories between four immigrants, who are Chinese to America. Banana Boys was, like, four guys, who “emigrated” to Waterloo, Ontario! From there, the narrative structure is different. I guess how Waterloo shapes Terry in terms of how… being an Asian man is different from being an Asian woman in this society. The stereotypes are different, the expectations are different. The ways we break free from our old Chinese culture when we adopt the Canadian values system are different as well.

CLC: How do you break stereotypes in your daily life?

SL: How do I break stereotypes in my daily life? Oh man… [silence] Well, I don’t know if you spoke to any Asian girls recently, but I have a personality! (laughs)… which is apparently lacking in many Asian men that they are trying to date! I have a life outside of my parents – I am not living at (their) home. I mean, I think that for Asian men, there are many choices that you can make, in terms of what cultural values you take up. How independent you are, versus how Confucian. North America has this very “cow-boy” individualism way, and the challenge is to balance this with family values, and everyone in their place in the hierarchy, a traditional Chinese point of view that doesn’t actually exist very much in China anymore.

CLC: Yeah, I see what you mean… My personal point of view is that we may have a tendency to think that Chinese values are more family-oriented. But what if it just depends on the stage that a society reached in its development? That we are a little in behind?

SL: We are, we are several decades behind. Even if you go speak with new Chinese immigrants now, they really embrace commercialism, and the liberalization of China.

CLC: Have you been to Mainland China?

SL: I went to Shenzhen, which was so weird to see. The big dormitory, the big factories. I went to this place that makes ink cartridges, and it was this weird mixture of low-tech and high-tech. You would have these huge plastic injection machines, and in North America, there would be a robot measuring the pellets going into the machine, etc. But in China, you have these 16-year old girls performing the same task of pouring the pellets, reaching with their arms to get the plastic pieces. You are, like, oh wow, if she is feeling a little sleepy on the job, there goes an arm! And they were washing these carcinogenic ink cartridges by hand. Really incredible!

CLC: Do you feel very Chinese?

SL: I don’t know what I feel. I feel sort of like a hybrid. You don’t really belong in either place. I don’t know if you get this sort of feeling too? (the interviewer interiorly thinks so) But you know. People from Mainland China, from Hong Kong, who come over here, they are different, they have a different cultural expectation. Just basically because you’ve grown up in a different environment, with these different Chinese values from a previous generation. So, you are out of date, like this weird old foggie. You don’t really fit here, because there are some things with North American values that you don’t agree with.

CLC: If you had time, what would you like to do?

I really like Montreal, because it has a good mix of artistic people, hardworking people, people who want to make money, people who are lazy and just want to have fun, and a good tension between different cultures. But Montreal doesn’t really have a good economy to attract people. So one of my projects is to make it a more attractive place for people to come and work.

CLC: You really like Montreal, eh?

SL: Yeah, I do! Because it’s like a big city that is in a small place that is walkable. It doesn’t have a very high density, but you can still meet all the people that you know. Well, it’s a little selfish to improve Montreal’s job prospects, since I would always be employed! Another reason is that more immigrants will move here, and you will have better ethnic food, because I really miss the good Chinese food!

CLC: Did you live in Toronto all your life prior to Montreal?

SL: No, actually, I’ve lived in Toronto, Ottawa, Waterloo and move to Montreal…

CLC: It’d be unfair to ask which one of them you like more, so could you tell us how you find them different?

SL: Toronto is more multicultural, but the problem is that Toronto has little fiefdoms, where the groups cluster together. Toronto is big enough that you can have your own little town where they exclusively speak one language. Montreal is too small for that. […] I actually like the fact that people mix together, because it helps people understand others’ point of view. Montreal is the best city for mixing cultures.

CLC: How about Ottawa?

SL: Ottawa is full of politicians! … In the winter, because Ottawa’s city planning include a lot of green spaces, you can’t get anywhere. It’s not like in Montreal, where I walk out of my door, and then I can go to my local butcher, shopping at the Italian grocery guy, where he sells super-cheap produce… I mean, that’s a nice sort of Hong Kong thing, where everyday you can just go out, buy fresh stuff, and come home to cook them.

CLC: Okay, now to conclude… Who are you?

SL: I am Simon Law… I don’t know who I am! I am a different person to different people – this is the best way to describe me. You can say that I am a generalist, that I like lots and lots of different things, that I like to bring different ideas that people would never thought of bringing together.

CLC: Well, thank you!

SL: You are welcome!

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